Kino Lorber has released a DVD of the acclaimed 2014 German documentary "From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses", based on the book by Siegfried Kracauer and directed and written by Rudiger Suchsland. The film traces cinematic achievements during Germany's brief fling with democracy between the two world wars. In the aftermath of the nation's disastrous defeat in WWI, the Weimar Republic was established, bringing democratic reforms to the country. It was a tumultuous period. Germany was virtually bankrupt after the war and the Allies, particularly France and England, soaked the nation with onerous damages that made it seem almost impossible for the country to ever recover. A dual-class system arose with those who were economically well-off and those who were the working class tradesmen and women who would toil for long hours often under inhumane conditions just to survive day-to-day. It was during this troubled era that German cinema rose to grand heights with a new generation of filmmakers who advanced the medium from being one of mere entertainment to being a reflection of social problems and values. For the first time, the impoverished lower classes were being championed. Ultimately, things began to turn around and a middle class emerged but fate was to intervene. A banking crisis and massive inflation, combined with the shock effects of the 1929 Great Depression, took its toll on the workers. Socialist and communist filmmakers made stirring movies that advocated a rising of the masses in protest, much as Russia had done in 1917. Meanwhile, the rich remained largely unaffected and Berlin became the center of a creative renaissance the likes of which modern Europe had never experienced. The city drew millions of visitors from around the world to revel in the new-found freedoms. Seemingly everyone was partying and there were major achievements in the theater and film. Progressive values were reflected in those films, as Germany was now a society in which females were suddenly liberated to live lifestyles that would have previously been considered Hedonistic. Homosexuality was out of the closet and gays and lesbians could live openly. The new freedoms would not last for long, however. The economic turbulence reflected by "the masses" would cause the population to veer to the hard right and National Socialism. The rise of Hitler would result in the repression of artistic freedoms and being gay meant imprisonment or death. The tumultuous era was chronicled by Christopher Isherwood in his "Berlin Stories", which, in turn, would form the basis of "Cabaret".
Rudiger Suchsland's remarkable documentary (German language, English sub-titles) chronicles the rise and fall of the one brief shining moment in which such talents as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg, Robert Siodmak and others revolutionized cinema and having it emerge as a major art form. The documentary affords us generous samples of the kinds of eye-popping visuals that are even more impressive today, given how primitive the tools were that these directors had to work with. Movies suddenly dealt with realistic issues, often in surrealistic ways. Some of the movies proved prescient regarding the fate that was in store for Germany. "Metropolis" chronicled the angry rise of oppressed masses in a futuristic society while "M"- ostensibly a crime thriller about the hunt for a serial killer of children- displayed brutish justice meted out by gangs who put the accused on trial in kangaroo courts. Not all cinematic fare was grim during this era, however. Hollywood-style musicals became popular and there emerged a new genre that was distinctly German: the "Mountain Films", natured-based stories that capitalized on the nation's vast beauty and the obsession with physical fitness. With the rise of National Socialism, many of the most talented German filmmakers saw the writing on the wall and emigrated to America, where they had long, fruitful careers. When Hitler assumed power, he engaged in the same tactics dictators and would-be dictators follow today: attacking and later controlling the free press and then turning the media over to propagandists who immediately quashed the great cinematic achievements of the Weimar era. Now films would reflect the state-run point of view and would be used to suppress and oppress society's "undesirables". The documentary only briefly covers the ascendancy of Hitler and his henchmen, instead concentrating on the movies made in the Weimar years. It's a remarkable film that serves not only as warning about the fragility of freedom and democracy, but also as a vehicle to experience these great works of art, most of which are fortunately available on home video.
The Kino Lorber release has an excellent transfer and contains the trailer for the documentary.